Even if you disagree with Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous remark that “history is a set of lies that people have agreed upon,” there’s little doubt that myths, misconceptions and outright fabrications have often shaped our understanding of the past. In some instances, these legends have become so ingrained that they overshadow the actual facts of a historical figure’s life. Find out the truth about seven notable people who’ve become forever linked with something they never did.
Abner Doubleday was a Civil War general and abolitionist who famously ordered the first Union shots in defense of Fort Sumter. But while he had a distinguished military career, Doubleday is more commonly remembered for inventing baseball—even though he did no such thing.
The story dates back to 1905, when former National League president A.G. Mills headed a commission to investigate the origins of America’s favorite pastime. Based on a letter from a man named Abner Graves, the commission incorrectly concluded that Doubleday had invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. In truth, Doubleday was attending West Point in 1839 and had never claimed any involvement with baseball. Nevertheless, the myth persisted for years, and the Baseball Hall of Fame was even established in Cooperstown on the sport’s mistaken centennial in 1939.
Lady Godiva is best known for defiantly riding naked through the streets of medieval Coventry to protest the crippling taxes her husband had levied on the townspeople. According to legend, at some point in the 11th century Godiva pressured her powerful husband, Leofric, to reduce the people’s debts. When he mockingly responded that he would only do so when she rode naked on horseback through the town, Godiva called his bluff and galloped into the history books.
While this story has become the stuff of legend—a tailor who spied on Godiva even inspired the phrase “peeping Tom”—scholars agree that the nude horseback ride probably never happened. Godiva certainly existed, but most histories mention her as simply the wife of an influential nobleman. In fact, the complete Godiva myth didn’t even appear until the 13th century, 200 years after the ride supposedly occurred. The story was later picked up by notable writers like Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose 1842 poem “Godiva” helped cement the tall tale as a historical fact.
One of the most famous stories of Roman decadence concerns Nero, the emperor who blithely “fiddled while Rome burned” during the great fire of 64 A.D. According to some ancient historians, the emperor had ordered his men to start the fire in order to clear space for his new palace. But while Nero was certainly no saint—he reportedly ordered the murder of his own mother during his rise to power—the story of his fiendish fiddling is likely exaggerated.
While some ancient chroniclers did describe the music-loving emperor as singing while he watched flames consume the city, the historian Tacitus would later denounce these claims as vicious rumors. According to him, Nero was away at Antium during the early stages of the blaze, and upon returning to Rome helped lead rescue and rebuilding efforts and even opened his palace gardens to those who lost their homes. A further strike against the legend is that the fiddle would not even be invented for several hundred years. If Nero played any instrument while Rome burned—which remains up for debate—it would most likely have been a cithara, a kind of lyre.
When she was informed that her people were starving from lack of bread, the 18th-century French queen Marie-Antoinette is said to have quipped, “Then let them eat cake.” This famous line has traditionally served to underscore the monarch’s ignorance of her subjects’ plight, yet there is almost no evidence that Marie-Antoinette ever uttered those words.
The phrase first appeared in reference to a “great princess” in the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book “Confessions,” which was written in early 1766. If Rousseau were indeed referring to Marie-Antoinette, it would mean she was only 10 years old and not yet a queen when she said it. Scholars think Rousseau either coined the phrase or that it was a common insult used to criticize various aristocratic figures in the 18th century. So if “let them eat cake” was ever directly attributed to Marie-Antoinette in her lifetime, it was most likely part of a deliberate attempt by her political opponents to discredit her.
Contrary to popular belief, the French doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin did not directly invent the feared decapitation machine that bears his name. Ironically, Guillotin was a noted opponent of capital punishment. Desperate to put a stop to the brutal ax beheadings and hangings used in state executions, in 1789 he proposed to the French National Assembly that a more humane and painless method be developed.
With Guillotin acting in a managerial role, the plans for what became the guillotine were then drafted by a surgeon named Antoine Louis, who modeled the device on similar machines found in Scotland and Italy. After a German named Tobias Schmidt built the first prototype, it was put into regular use by the French government. While Guillotin had neither designed nor built the apparatus, it still eventually became known—much to his disgust—as the guillotine. Another popular claim states that Guillotin was later beheaded by the guillotine during the French Revolution, but this too is a myth.
George Washington Carver was an American scientist and inventor famous for creating alternative food products and farming methods. But while Carver’s many innovations earned him comparisons to Leonardo da Vinci, the erroneous belief that he invented peanut butter has stuck in the popular imagination.
Carver was indeed a peanut pioneer—he is reputed to have found over 300 uses for the legume during his career—but he wasn’t the first person to create peanut butter. In truth, evidence of peanut-based pastes can be found in South America as far back as 950 B.C. Meanwhile, modern peanut butter substances were first patented in 1884 by Marcellus Edson—who referred to it as “peanut-candy”—and later by John Harvey Kellogg, who unveiled a process for creating peanut butter in 1895. While he eventually became its most famous advocate, Carver did not begin his own experiments on the peanut until 1903.
One of American history’s most persistent legends involves Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress who supposedly made the first American flag. As the story goes, in 1776 Ross was commissioned to sew the flag—which then featured a circle of 13 stars—by a small committee that included George Washington. Ross supposedly produced her famous flag a few days later and even changed the design to make the stars five-pointed rather than six-pointed.
While versions of this story continue to be taught in American classrooms, most historians dismiss it as a tall tale. Newspapers from the time make no reference to Ross or the meeting, and Washington never mentioned her involvement in creating the flag. In fact, the Ross legend didn’t even make its first appearance until 1870, when her grandson, William Canby, related it to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. But outside of showing affidavits from family members, Canby never produced any convincing evidence to support his claim. It’s true that Betsy Ross made American flags in the late 1770s, but the tale of her very first flag is likely untrue.